A Community in Flux
The Mississippi Avenue neighborhoods are once again under seige by the forces of "development" and "urban renewal". But rather than community building, these forces aim at community replacement. Those moving into the Boise neighborhood should we aware of the history of neglect and displacement that haunts Mississippi Avenue and the neighborhoods which surround it.
Mississippi Avenue, and the Boise neighborhood, is once again facing the forces of "Urban Renewal". A neighborhood that has overcome many struggles in the past, which have disturbed and displaced its residents, is now losing the economic battle over its homes, businesses and its parks. Situated high upon the bluffs of North Portland, its easy access to downtown, isolated residential streets and the existing commercial buildings that line the avenue, all make the Mississippi Avenue area attractive to young, upwardly-mobile, urban professionals who are seeking a place to settle down. But with these young families comes the force of Urban Renewal, and ultimately gentrification, with far-reaching implications on existing families
The Boise neighborhood, long before acquiring this name, was inhabited predominantly by middle-class German families. Mississippi Avenue, as it now exists, is only part of the original avenue though. The avenue once followed straight down the hill into the lower Albina area, lined with homes and businesses. This area was filled primarily with working-class Swedish families, who labored in the adjacent Albina Railyards.
During World War II the industrial building yards around Portland were built up as part of the war effort, especially shipbuilding yards along the Columbia and train capacities across the Northwest. This industry brought poor families from the rural South, looking for work and a new place to call home. Many of these families found homes in Vanport, a federal housing project near the confluence of the Columbia and Willamette rivers. A complete city of, at one time, 80,000 residents, it was noted for being the most racially diverse city in Oregon, and the highest number of African-American residents in the Pacific Northwest. But in 1948, a massive flood broke through the levees along Vanport flooding the town so quickly that evacuation was nearly impossible. Many blame the Kaiser group (whose shipyards were main employers of the residents), for stalling the warnings of insecure levees, as well as the city and state for negligence of allowing the disaster to happen. In all, 15 people were killed, dozens seriously injured, and 18,000 were left homeless. Many of the African-Americans relocated to the relatively close Albina neighborhood.
Almost overnight the Mississippi Avenue neighborhoods became predominantly African-American, as well as those along Williams Vancouver, and Martin Luther King Boulevard, from Russell Street to Killingsworth. Many of the Vanport families also moved into the housing between Broadway and Burnside, known as Sullivan's Gulch.
The automobiles introduction had harsh impacts on the neighborhood, as it did in cities across America. Those families who were able to afford the suburban flight, made it, while those who lacked the means were left behind, living in forgotten urban neighborhoods. With business following out to the surrounding beltways of the city, people left in these urban neighborhoods were left without work, without services and without the attention of city officials -that is until "urban blight" became a political issue. Urban blight was a term used to describe the conditions of these forgotten city neighborhoods that had become economically depressed during the post-war years. Low-income areas were described as "low tax bases", making it easier for officials to deny repair to streets and parks, fueling the decay of urban neighborhoods. By the mid-1950's urban neighborhoods across America acquired reputations as dangerous places where the new suburban middle class feared to visit.
What this meant to residents was a feeling of being trapped in their own neighborhoods, with little recourse to revitalize their homes, businesses or parks. Lending was denied to these residents for economic development of any kind, as it was labeled risky to invest in businesses or homes that were in these "red-lined" areas. Banks literally drew maps with pre-denied neighborhoods blocked off by red lines to be used when considering loan applications.
What this meant for city officials was a chance to win political support from developers and removed suburban voters by opening these depressed areas for re-development, or "Urban Renewal". Large projects were undertaken in attempts to draw suburban families back into the city, if only to spend their money. Here in Portland, the Lloyd Center shopping mall, the Fremont Bridge and the Minnesota Freeway were all major urban renewal projects, aimed at bringing shoppers back into downtown. Unfortunately for the residents of these urban neighborhoods, each of these projects displaced hundreds, and in some cases, thousands of families.
One of the early renewal projects of this era in Portland was the Lloyd Center shopping district. This project, completed in 1960 undertook the redevelopment of dozens of blocks of housing. Along side the construction of Interstate 84, which ran directly through Sullivan's Gulch, the neighborhoods in the renewal area were easy candidates for redevelopment. The displaced families had little to defend them from the developers' claims, and were quickly forced to leave their homes. Many of them relocated into the Lower Albina neighborhood.
Ironically, the construction of the Coliseum, only a few years later, was aimed at the area between Broadway and Interstate 84. This effectively displaced many of those same families who had been moved during the Lloyd Center's construction. With little choice left, many of them settled in the Mississippi neighborhoods and further up in Northeast neighborhoods.
The building of the Minnesota freeway was probably the most detrimental single project of Portland's urban renewal, as far as Mississippi Avenue is concerned. Not only did the building of the freeway require the demolition of hundreds of houses, it created a blockade between once contiguous sections of neighborhood. The neighborhoods between Interstate Avenue and Mississippi Avenue were once open and inviting for foot traffic or residents looking to visit either retail area. The freeway, with its monstrous size and speed, virtually killed both avenues overnight. The remaining homeowners on either side were also left to face lead emissions in their air and soil and the roar of speeding cars throughout the day and night. Mississippi Avenue was redirected under the freeway cutting off the remaining bit of Lower Albina and further isolated Mississippi from the surrounding neighborhoods.
So when Kaiser Permanente Hospital began to bid with the city to redevelop the land between Russell Street and Fremont along Williams Avenue, it is no surprise that residents refused to move from their homes. Facing police force some families barricaded themselves in homes and some organized and marched into the construction zones. Some even lined Williams, throwing bottles at passing motorists in an attempt to gain media attention to the problems facing them. Ultimately though, these families were all forced to leave their home, once again relocating further up in North and Northeast neighborhoods.
Finally when the Fremont Bridge was constructed, between 1971-73, the eastside on-ramp displaced some of the last remaining residents in the neighborhoods below the current Boise neighborhood. Again, some families protested the project, but as in previous projects they had little opportunity to affect the decisions. Some were fortunate enough to be moved only a few blocks up into the adjacent neighborhood along Mississippi Avenue.
So what we face today along Mississippi Avenue is hardly a new issue. The forces of Urban Renewal are hard at work again to "rescue" a neighborhood from "blight" and "decay". In the interests of business we are seeing the redevelopment of block after block of commercial, industrial and residential lots along Mississippi, drawing in new residents and raising property values throughout the neighborhood. The median income of residents has risen quickly over the last few years, which increases tax-bases, forcing the city to complete long-overdue maintenance on streets and parks. The rising economic values on the properties of the Boise neighborhood cause the land taxes of adjacent properties to rise as well. These increased taxes and fees often become harder for elder residents to afford; that is to say, they have not become more prosperous just because the neighborhood has become more prosperous. The increased costs of living, coupled with the influx of a new, more affluent "gentry class" of people makes the neighborhood, which they have lived in through the times of red-lining and economic isolation, become uninviting.
Mississippi is rife with a history of displacement, resentment, and flux.
Of course, without discounting the Native Americans who lived along the bluffs in what is now North Portland, several communities have undergone displacement from this neighborhood. What was, during the 1950's, a dim-lit street of be-bop clubs and was abandoned by the city as a "blight" is now being rediscovered as new boutiques, coffee shops and cafes. The character of a place is defined by the acts that occur there. Those moving into the neighborhoods along Mississippi should be wary of the cycles of gentrification and its negative ramifications. And those opening businesses within the neighborhood should try to consider the residents of the area before the profits that can be won.
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